- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The close-quarter fighting between Iraqi forces and militants using human shields and booby-trapped houses to slow their advance is making it harder to avoid endangering more civilians, a top U.S. military commander said Wednesday.
“I believe that as we move into these urban environments, it is going to become more and more difficult to apply an extraordinarily high standard” for preventing civilian casualties, “but we will try,” head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told members of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.
But Votel stressed that the basic rules of engagement for U.S. airstrikes has not changed in recent weeks, and American forces always try and avoid civilian casualties.
U.S.-trained Iraqi forces — often in touch with American advisors nearby — are calling for air support every day inside Mosul, and American and and coalition aircraft are hitting dozens of targets a day. Given relatively new rules that allow U.S. commanders to approve strikes more quickly than they had in the past, the numbers of bombs falling are hitting record highs for the 31-month U.S.-led air campaign. But it is risky.
Investigators are trying to piece together what happened on March 17, when during heavy fighting in the al-Jadida neighborhood in western Mosul one building came down, burying over 200 civilians who had been huddled inside.
Two U.S. generals said this week that they believe their aircraft likely were involved in some way in the incident, which would stand as the largest U.S.-caused civilian casualty event since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria, told reporters there was “a fair chance” a U.S. airstrike played a role in the the Mosul strike. He said that ISIS had been using the building as a fighting position, and that “the enemy had a hand in this,” suggesting Islamic State used civilians as human shields or potentially rigged the building with explosives.
Rescue workers on the ground are still finding bodies in the rubble, and some local officials said Wednesday that 250 corpses have been pulled from the site over the past 12 days. On Tuesday, a team of American military personnel, including explosive experts and engineers, made their way to the site to examine the ruins and collect samples to determine what kind of explosives brought the structure down, one Defense official told FP.
Putting civilians at risk is the nature of war in a dense urban environment against an enemy who doesn’t recognize the laws of war, both Townsend and Votel said. “The best way to liberate Mosul is to fight the Islamic State inside the city,” one military officer said. “But how do you save these people without endangering them?”
The level of violence of late has been staggering. Recent Air Force statistics show that U.S. and allied planes dropped more than 7,000 bombs on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria over the first two months of this year, by far the most of any two-month stretch since the ISIS war began more than two and a half years ago.
Late last year, some changes to how airstrikes were approved in Iraq and Syria began to take effect, speeding up the process for greenlighting strikes. During much of the campaign that kicked off in August 2014, strikes were approved at high levels of command — often at the White House — frustrating commanders on the ground who saw some opportunities hit hit the enemy slip away. Now, Iraqi or U.S. troops on the ground can request a strike and it will go to a U.S. officer at a command center, who approves the strike.
But given the fluid fight in Mosul, where U.S. and coalition aircraft, Apache helicopters, Paladin howitzers, and HIMARS precision rockets stationed outside the city are firing 24 hours a day at an enemy on the move, those calls are being made quickly. There are about 450 American advisors embedded within Iraqi infantry and special forces units in and around Mosul, U.S. officials say, assisting with tactical issues and helping to call in airstrikes.
The strikes in a populated city have drawn the concern of human rights groups.
“Evidence gathered on the ground in East Mosul points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside,” said Donatella Rovera at Amnesty International. “The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch also expressed serious concerns. “The high number of civilian deaths in recent fighting, as well as recent announcements about changed procedures for vetting airstrikes, raise concerns about the way the battle for west Mosul is being fought,” said Lama Fakih, the organization’s deputy Middle East director.
Interviews with survivors of the March 17 attack conducted by the group indicate that dozens of families had taken refuge inside the building in the days before the strike, driven from other areas of the city by the fighting. Witnesses describe a large airstrike in the area at about 8:30 am that shook the entire neighborhood.
There have been many reports of ISIS fighters forcing groups of families into buildings in Western Mosul to act as shields against U.S. airstrikes and ground assaults by Iraqi forces, and a U.S. military official told FP that there is surveillance footage of the militants moving groups of civilians with them though the city, and herding them into booby-trapped buildings they use as fighting positions.
The United Nations human rights chief backed up those claims on Wednesday, calling ISIS “an enemy that ruthlessly exploits civilians to serve its own ends, and clearly has not even the faintest qualm about deliberately placing them in danger.” At least 307 civilians had been killed and 273 wounded in western Mosul since Feb. 17, the U.N. estimates.
Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images